For most people who believe that scientists are best able to speak on scientific matters, the global warming debate was pretty much over 20 years ago. Except for a few skeptics, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was and is accepted as fact in the scientific community. It’s interesting to note that in the political world as well, AGW was a bipartisan issue; even John McCain vowed to fight global warming in his 2008 campaign.
But something happened along the way. All of a sudden, it became uncool in the conservative community as a whole to admit that AGW was real. The conservatives gave wildly different reasons for the proposition that 98 percent of climatologists were wrong about AGW: some said that there was indeed a global conspiracy, others said that scientists were being forced by peer pressure to accept the majority scientific view, still others claimed that AGW couldn’t be real because the Bible didn’t say it would happen, and then there were a few who accepted that global warming was happening, but that it just wasn’t proven to their satisfaction that humans were the cause. Interestingly enough, this tectonic shift in thinking among conservatives happened at about the same time that they began to reject definitively conservative ideas like cap-and-trade and the individual mandate, but the conservatives’ current practice of vehement rejection of any position where liberals agree with them is probably a story for another time.
Now Richard Muller is a very bright fellow. His Wikipedia page states that he is “an American professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a faculty senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory” and that he won an award from the National Science Foundation “for highly original and innovative research which has led to important discoveries and inventions in diverse areas of physics, including astrophysics, radioisotope dating, and optics.” On July 28th, he penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic”, and it hit the liberal side of the media by storm; not a single liberal site to my knowledge failed to trumpet his “conversion.”
Note the quotation marks on that last word. The very next day, junkscience.com posted a quick blurb about his op-ed with a link to this rather unflattering page about the esteemed scientist. In fact, the gist of that last reference is that Richard Muller was never a true AGW skeptic; and they are right. The main reason that Richard Muller was seen as such an AGW-denial bugaboo was this 2004 article where he showed what he felt were problems with the “hockey stick” graph that seemed to describe AGW. But in that same article wherein he attacked the controversial graph, he also said:
If you are concerned about global warming (as I am) and think that human-created carbon dioxide may contribute (as I do), then you still should agree that we are much better off having broken the hockey stick. Misinformation can do real harm, because it distorts predictions. Suppose, for example, that future measurements in the years 2005-2015 show a clear and distinct global cooling trend (It could happen). If we mistakenly took the hockey stick seriously–that is, if we believed that natural fluctuations in climate are small–then we might conclude (mistakenly) that the cooling could not be just a random fluctuation on top of a long-term warming trend, since according to the hockey stick, such fluctuations are negligible. And that might lead in turn to the mistaken conclusion that global warming predictions are a lot of hooey. If, on the other hand, we reject the hockey stick, and recognize that natural fluctuations can be large, then we will not be misled by a few years of random cooling. A phony hockey stick is more dangerous than a broken one–if we know it is broken. It is our responsibility as scientists to look at the data in an unbiased way, and draw whatever conclusions follow. When we discover a mistake, we admit it, learn from it, and perhaps discover once again the value of caution.